I was not alarmed when the report came from Kansas, where Gov. Ronald Reagan was campaigning among wheat farmers, that he did not seem to know exactly what parity means. I don't know exactly what parity means either. I have always suspected that practicaly nobody knows what parity means -- the possible exceptions being a few farmers and the Washington correspondent of The Des Moines Register & Tribune.

"I think it's shocking that a man running for president of the United States does not even know what parity means," my wife said when she read the news from Kansas.

"I don't know what it means either," I said.

"You don't?" she said. "But didn't I hear you say yesterday that Reagan was out in the Farm Belt talking about cowpods and parity?"

"You did indeed," I said. "But I don't know what it means. I don't think anybody knows what it means."

I avoided the question of whether she happened to know the meaning of parity herself. I had learned my lesson some months before when, in an idle moment, I asked her the name of the secretary of labor and she replied, "I will not stand here and be grilled like a common criminal."

"But I've heard you argue against parity," my wife said.

"True," I admitted. "Also for it. But I don't know what it means. You don't have to know what something means to argue about it. Do you think all of those people who were arguing about populism a few years ago knew what it meant? When I was working on the college newspaper, as I remember it, I managed to write at least half a dozen editorials on something called the Oak Street Connector without having the remotest idea of what it was. I demanded to know why construction of the Oak Street Connector was behind schedule. I questioned whether the Oak Street Connector was really what the city ought to have been spending its money on. I argued against it. Also for it."

"What did it turn out to be?"

"I don't know," I said. "It still wasn't finished when I graduated; my last editiorial on it complained of 'unconscionable delays.' It might be a building, I suppose, or maybe a viaduct -- unless, of course, it's an electrical generator. Or a dating service."

I know my wife was distressed that I had never made an effort to find out what parity means, although she bravely tried to hide her disappointment by calling me an ignoramus. In my defense, I can only say that once, many years ago, I suffered what the social scientists would call a strong disincentive to learning the meaning of parity; I knew someone who knew precisely what parity meant, and he couldn't seem to keep it to himself. Among the staff of a magazine we were both working for at the time, he was the writer who specialized in subjects like the workings of the Federal Reserve System and the legislation governing public housing -- not to speak of parity. Not to speak of parity was something he rarely did in my presence. He must have known that, when it came to parity, my tabula was particularly rasa, because he seemed to respond to my presence the way a particularly zealous missionary responds to the presence of the village's most intractable idol worshipper. Listening to his explanatory drone was one of those experiences that instructs a young man in the blessings of selective ignorance. e

"I think any well-informed citizen would know what parity means," my wife said, making it clear from the remark what sort of citizen she considered me.

I picked up the telephone and called a writer we know -- a specialist in foreign affairs and some of the other black arts. "Ronald Reagan doesn't know what parity means," I said.

"I'm not surprised to hear it," the foreign affaris specialist said. "I have always assumed that even mild irony would be beyond his range."

"Not parody," I said. "Parity."

"Oh. Well."

"Do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Do you know what parity means?"

There was a long pause. "Agriculture is, in fact, a peripheral issue," the foreign affairs specialist said. "The only issue that touches our survival -- the survival of our society, the very survival of life on this planet -- is the issue of war and peace."

Just as I thought. For further confirmation, I telephoned a friend who is known to be wise in the ways of New York politics.

"Do you know what parity is?" I asked.

"Of course I know what parity is," he said. "Parity is what the farmers are always kvetching about."

"That is precisely how much any well-informed citizen knows about parity," I said to my wife. "That it has something to do with farmers. It's just like Two-Words Tofsky's old trick."

"I suppose you're going to tell me who Two-Words Tofsky is even is I don't ask," she said.

"Glad you brought it up," I said. "Two-Words Tofsky was a college acquaintance of mine who understood that anyone could sound knowledgeable about any subject if he simply knew the right two words to put together. If someone mentioned Husserl, Two-Words would say something like, 'I decided phenomenology's not for me.' Someone asked him what he thought about Thoreau once, and he said. "Too outdoorsy.' Everybody thought Two-Words knew everything."

"And where is Two-Words today?"

"Last time I saw him, he was farming wheat in Kansas."

"And does he understand what parity is?"

"Of course not," I said. "But he was doing a lot of kvetching about it. I told him the farmers would be better off to forget about parity and start concentrating on productivity."

"What did you mean by that?"

"I haven't the foggiest," I said. "I don't know what productivity means either."